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Ethical Episodes

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The Dancing Philosopher

Joel Marks Just Can’t Stop.

Every afternoon at the end of my work day I head out for a walk. The locals can set their clocks by this latter day Immanuel Kant. Only when rain and cold and wind are absolutely wretched will this philosopher be kept from his appointed rounds. But on those occasions I make a substitute for my daily constitutional by dancing in my living room to the sounds of music on Pandora. I’ve got a station selected for songs with a fast, heavy beat.

Thus was I engaged one day when I realized something: I was a marionette. When I’m strutting and shaking and jumping and twisting in the throes of these sounds, it is not by any act of will. ‘Somebody else’ is pulling the strings. Whether it’s Pat Benatar singing ‘Heartbreaker’ or Billy Idol singing ‘White Wedding’ or Steppenwolf playing ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ or The Trammps playing ‘Disco Inferno,’ my motions just happen in response. I would have to exert my will to stop them … if I could. Similarly when I’m at a club. If the band begins to play rhythm and blues, or my stepson revs up his rock band, I simply cannot remain seated. Partner or no partner, I’m up on the dance floor; and you’d have to drag me off if the band was still playing.

So much for the idea that free will is something we feel. The only way I could accurately describe my feelings and consequent behaviors in these situations is that they are compelled by an outside force. Yet surely my dancing is an expression of me in the purest form. If this is not me acting feely, then what is? Would only my resistance count as truly free? Or my forcing myself to dance if I did not feel like it? My fellow walker (but presumably not dancer!) Kant might have thought so. He wrote: “Suppose that, even though no inclination moves him any longer, he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty – then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth.” (from the First Section of his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). Moral worth, according to Kant, derives from acting freely (in accordance with the categorical imperative), but presumably my dancing would count only as acting from ‘inclination.’

This is not the first time in this column that I have noted my own roboticness. In Issue 77 I reported on a discovery I made at the kitchen sink. In that case my behavior was the result of thought processes; I was washing the breakfast dishes because I realized that they would just get in the way if I left them unwashed in the sink and furthermore become more difficult to clean as the dirt encrusted and they piled up, and I didn’t want any of that to happen. It required self-awareness and inference to figure out that what I was doing was therefore not something I had initiated from scratch but rather the result of a chain of causes and effects ultimately stretching back billions of years.

In the present case, quite differently, the realization of roboticness was direct: It just felt that way. And that is because I did not have to become aware of what I was thinking in order to link my circumstances to my behavior. The ‘circumstances’ were simply the music, which caused my dancing. Or even more graphically, the cause was a certain pattern of airwaves hitting my inner ear, and the effect was my body jerking around. The whole event was as physical as a hammer hitting a nail, or as if there really were strings attached to my body being pulled by a very strong puppeteer in the rafters. How could I miss that?

Meanwhile it is child’s play – or more literally I should say oldster’s amusement, for experience helps – to pick out the automatic behavior of others. At my ripening age it has become downright tedious to observe the completely predictable behavior of people I know, people I read about in the news, as well as of political parties, nation-states, and other groupings of human beings. We are all marching to the beat of some drummer or other, and often the same one. This also makes us liable to manipulation by those who figure out the best beats and strike their drum accordingly. In the literal case of the dance music I like, it’s great to be manipulated in this way. But I, like all of us, have also been the victim countless times of drummers and string-pullers who used their implicit or explicit knowledge of my inner workings to gain some advantage over me. (Although they may not have understood at all what was making them do that.)

But no matter which way the determinism reveals itself, it is a fact. And it is a fact which fascinates me. Really, what could be more amazing than realizing that one is an automaton? It has a definite science-fiction aura to it, like realizing you are a replicant in Blade Runner, or an alien pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But this is reality, backed up by both science and philosophic reflection. I have long marveled at the implications. And more recently, with these mundane recognitions of my own determinism, I have taken delight in cultivating and compiling a phenomenology of determinism. What is it like to be an android? This is a question anyone can answer on one’s own: Just know thyself.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2013

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He could not help but write his latest book, Ethics without Morals.

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